Random musings of a composer in London
Gran and Grandad's property - Shamba Yetu (or just "The Farm", as it was fondly referred to) - was the physical embodiment of my Grandad's soul. It was a place so entwined with his image in my mind that it's the backdrop to almost every recollection of him, much as the sky is the backdrop to a landscape. Physically, it was a modest 50-acre smallholding straddling a ridge-line in the green and rolling Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands, but to my child's eye it was a magical place of wonder and intrigue, with pine forests to explore and build forts in, hills to climb, tracks to ride a bicycle on, secret hiding places to squeeze into, and always something fascinating to watch - the insides of a tractor being emptied onto a table, a mouse being rescued from an inspection pit, a Ferguson with a slasher attachment mowing the driveway, or a generator engine being started up in a cacophony of chaotic sensual stimulus. It was the keen and creative mind of my Grandad made real - an off-grid dream, already being lived out 30 years ago, that many of us still yearn for today.
Most of my earliest and fondest memories are from family holidays we spent there. The evenings were lit gently by the amber glow of paraffin lamps, and a quietly hissing Tilley lantern with a brilliant white mantle, placed in whichever communal space was currently in use. After being tucked into bed I would fall asleep to murmured voices drifting through from the sitting room, and the boxy muttering of a small battery-powered TV. In the early mornings I would awaken as the first grey light began to seep into my room, illuminating abstract landscape patterns on the curtains which I could never quite make sense of. I would lie quietly in my bed, occasionally shifting with the muffled crunch of old bed springs, listening to the sleeping house slowly beginning to expand in the morning air, the sound of turtle doves and spotted pigeons clearing their throats in the pine trees outside. In those quiet moments time stood still, every small sound exquisitely profiled, observed and recorded in my mind. But presently my Gran would get up, and the kitchen would then be filled with the comforting clank and rattle of morning activity, to the accompaniment of Radio Port Natal on a portable wireless, the aromas of coffee, oatmeal porridge and toast wafting through into my warm bed cocoon.
My Gran was the warmth and homeliness of Shamba Yetu, while my Grandad breathed the raw magic into it. He built the house and its numerous satellite sheds, garages and outbuildings almost entirely with his own hands, to a vision which existed purely in his own mind. The house grew organically, as a seed might evolve into a tree, beginning with a single square room, to which were gradually added various, ever expanding appendages which evolved and transformed through different functions over the years, giving the final house a pleasingly rambling, fractal-like quality, rooms leading off one another like words on a scrabble board.
Much of my memory of my Grandad and Shamba Yetu is rooted in aroma. The smell of grease, engine or gear oil instantly transports me back there, as does sun-warmed creosote, damp pine sawdust and wet cement. They are the representations of the ever-present activity and industry which took place there, curated and orchestrated by my Grandad - cutting firewood, repairing a gearbox, pumping water from the well, extending a building, each with its own unique and heady cocktail of scent. These smells were his smell, the essence of them emanating pleasantly from him like a cologne when I hugged him goodnight.
My Grandad did everything himself, but "DIY" is far too contrived a term to describe the depth of his work. "DIY" suggests attempting a clumsy repair on a toilet cistern with a pair of cheap pliers. What my Grandad did turned building, fixing and maintaining into a creative art form, an artisan craft, akin to that of a blacksmith or a violin maker. He was just as adept at overhauling a huge tractor as mending a broken toy, his practical, problem-solving mind finding connections which would elude most people. He had mastered second-life and recycling decades before they became the buzzwords they are today - gearbox parts became birdcage stands, truck bodies became storage sheds and tractor drivetrains became power generators. His workshop was a place of wonder, with vast walls of tools hung impeccably on specially-crafted panels, which swung open to reveal even more ranks of tools behind, like a silent army of repair. Even as a young adult I was only vaguely aware of what many of them were for, but my Grandad knew the location and purpose of every one, and maintained them all meticulously. He carried on his belt a vast, jingling set of keys - the soundtrack to his walk - for a hundred doors, padlocks and ignition switches which turned only at his command - the ultimate symbol of the mastery he held over his domain. Any problem could be solved with a little ingenuity, an object retrieved from a storage space, the right tool, and some quiet patience.
My Grandad's talents in this regard instilled in me, from my earliest years, the fundamental notions that things are made rather than bought; fixed rather than replaced. His ideology was that of "'n boer maak 'n plan (a farmer makes a plan)", inherited directly from the earliest colonial settlers from whom he was descended. Today we may look back on colonialism with the political criticism it may rightfully deserve, but there is no denying that those individual men and women who struck out into new lands, far removed from any European familiarity, home comforts or even basic supply chains, were some of the most resilient and resourceful human beings in history. Today, living off-grid is a lifestyle choice, to my Grandad and his ancestors it was a necessity.
My younger childhood impression of my Grandad was one of quiet awe, his command over all things making him somewhat intimidating. His aura to me was that of a wizard - magical, wise and ultimately benevolent, but also powerful and dangerous to cross. He could be stern, particularly when I or my cousins became too boisterous or mischievous, although the threat was generally only ever implied. As I grew older however, I began to understand that his true nature was one of kindness, patience and gentleness, which shone through in his love for family, animals (particularly cats) and flowers. I spent many quietly contented hours with him, helping tend to and deliver the fuchsias and hellebores from his thriving nursery, picking and packing hundreds of plums to sell from the orchard, or taking days out together to visit car shows in his beloved Austin 16, where we bonded over our shared enjoyment of vehicles, engines and other mechanical contraptions. He was not really one for outward declarations of affection, but the simple companionship and conversations we shared in those moments spoke more than any words could.
I have spoken before about the odd disconnect between my early life in South Africa, and my adult life in the UK. Whilst I know in my soul that it was the right decision to make my life here in England, it doesn't mean that there weren't inevitably missed opportunities as a result. What it would have been, for instance, to embark on some wonderful shared project with my Grandad - perhaps restoring an old car together, or designing and building a complex system of pumps and water tanks on my own plot of land somewhere. Who knows what opportunities I could have had to combine my own love of making, building and fixing things with his. When Rach and I visited him a few years back, we chatted enthusiastically with him about our long-term dream to build our own off-grid home in Wales, and it was wonderful to see him light up at the thought of it. It would have been even more wonderful to have him physically be part of that journey too.
But, as sad as it is to think about this, the fact for which I'm the most grateful is that I do share that connection with him, largely down to his own infectious enthusiasm, which rubbed off on me as a child. And, as much as we have no idea what comes next after our human chapter comes to a close, I like to believe that his spirit will live on in some way within me, and that he will look on proudly one day at the things that I too will build and create myself, in order to live my own dreams.
Today, on the 25th April 2020, I have arrived at a particularly significant milestone. As of around 9:30am this morning, I’ve been a resident of the UK for a full eighteen years, meaning that I’ve now lived in England for longer than I ever lived in South Africa. To put it another, more mind-boggling way - if I’d fathered a child when I arrived in the UK, that child would now be the same age as I was when I landed here (not to mention there’d have been some rather alarming things going on in my personal life).
The fact that I’ve now spent more years in England than South Africa is a bizarre thought, and one that I couldn’t even have imagined when I stepped off that Virgin Atlantic flight in April 2002. Back then, it was all about living from moment to moment, sucking up the experiences around me like a recently unblocked plughole, overwhelming myself wilfully with the sights, sounds and experiences of a culture so similar, and yet so fundamentally alien to my own. I was most certainly a foreigner. A tourist even. I had a strong sense of being overseas, away from home. A sense that, as long and free-ranging as my chain was, the anchor to which it was attached still lay firmly in the serene folds of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa.
Of course, today I’m still essentially that same person, albeit now with the clichéd paradigms of less hair and more wisdom (the two apparently being inversely proportional). But there’s one fundamental aspect of my personality which has come into question more as the years have rolled by, and that’s the matter of that anchor. These days, although the weight of it still remains wedged in place back in South Africa, the chain by which I’m attached to it has gradually been corroding away in the salty waters of my life experience, to the point now that if I tugged on it, I'm not sure it would still hold. If for some reason I were forced to choose between British or South African citizenship tomorrow, I think it would be a pretty easy decision to make.
The thing is, while superficially I still consider myself to be “South African” (mainly because my British life still hasn’t quite succeeded in removing the saffa tint from my voice), the reality is these days I bear only a passing resemblance to the residents of my birthplace. I am missing nearly two decades of popular culture, I have forgotten much of the language, rules and customs, and despite my best attempts to keep myself in the loop, I also know precious little about my country's current affairs or politics. Were I to pack up my belongings and move back there tomorrow, I would find it just as bewildering as I found the UK when I first arrived here. And doesn't that say a lot.
But, here's the rub - I don't really feel like I'm British either. Instead, it feels rather as though I've turned on the TV part-way through a movie - early enough for me to get to grips with the characters and figure out the storyline, but far enough along that I've missed a few important scenes at the beginning. No matter how involved I become with the plot, no matter how many tears I shed at the end when the protagonist's dog dies, I will still always be missing a few final pieces of the puzzle. Of course, I can still find out what happened at the beginning by asking someone who watched the whole thing, but even so, I will still always have that nagging feeling of having missed a bit.
And so, if I’m neither South African nor British, what precisely am I? Well, a hybrid, really. Britafrican. And in fact, that’s something I've become quite proud of over the years. After all, hybrids are almost always an improvement - they combine the best of two individual concepts into something new and unique which surpasses the originals. In the same way that the diverse gene inheritance of multiracial people means they are stronger and less susceptible to disease, my Saffa/Brit cultural inheritance gives me some advantages over my mono-national contemporaries. On one hand, I've retained many of my South African cultural mannerisms - my unique accent, my proficiency with a 'braai' (barbecue), my love and experience of outdoor activities like hiking or camping, and my useful local knowledge when talking about or showing people around my homeland. On the other hand, I have a British passport, a solid knowledge of UK history, geography and politics, and a bank account with some nice solid pounds sterling in it (well, relatively solid anyway - thanks, Brexit). I’m as proud of my Britishness as I am of my South-Africanishness, even though neither one defines me completely.
Being a hybrid also grants me a unique perspective on life in both countries. I’ve noticed, for instance, that many Brits have a tendency to bemoan the shortcomings of their country - the government, the transport, the weather and even their own culture. As an immigrant though I subconsciously compare every aspect of my British life to that in my country of origin. I’m not stewing over the five-minute delay on the tube so much as marvelling at the convenience of its very existence. I’m not grumbling about the continual dampness so much as celebrating our abundance of water. Likewise, when I’m in South Africa I can now appreciate the raw, visceral beauty of the country, its culture and its people, just as a tourist would, without becoming bogged down by its day-to-day fears and frustrations.
So, after eighteen years in England, I'm in the arguably enviable position of being able to consciously pick-and-mix the best bits from both of my homelands with which to furnish my personality, like a sort of cultural Ikea. It’s a rare gift, and one which can only really be obtained with the perspective gained from experiencing life for an extended period in more than one country. Sure, these days anyone with a passport and a credit card can travel to far-off lands and experience foreign culture. But it’s only once you immerse yourself in that culture for long enough to assimilate some of it into your own personality that you really become permanently richer for the experience.
Afrikaans people in South Africa have a word for a white colonial of British descent: "Soutpiel" (pronounced “sowt-peel”), which roughly translates as "Salty Penis". The rather droll joke being that they have one foot in Africa and one foot back in England, leaving their privates dangling in the sea between the two. It’s intended to be demeaning - the inference being that us “Souties” can never truly be South African because we can’t let go of our European roots. And certainly, I would concur that am the definitive (if not literal) personification of a Soutpiel.
Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, the joke is on them. Sure, I may have roots in Europe, but I also have roots in Africa, and from them both I extract a rich cultural nourishment which includes both the dry red soil of the African plains and the damp white chalk of the British downs. And that can only serve to make me stronger and more culturally diverse, after all.
To another eighteen years!
When I first stepped out onto English soil 16 years ago, I was completely oblivious to the complex class spiderweb into which I was walking. Of course, we had a class structure in South Africa, but as you’ve probably guessed, this was designated mainly by race. As terribly politically incorrect as this was, it did make things easy, especially in my young, naive child’s mind. Black people dug up the roads and vacuumed the house, white people worked in offices and drove BMWs. Simple. We were white, so we socialised with other whites. Some earned a bit more, some a bit less, but we were all essentially the same: White middle class. My parents were thankfully quite liberal, but I knew plenty of other white families who were openly derogatory about other races and their cultures. Such was the twisted world of apartheid South Africa. Things did start changing somewhat after Mandela came to power in 1994, but for the most part the social structure in the rural farming community where we lived remained largely unchanged. Blacks and whites lived totally separate lives, we in our comfy carpeted four-bedroomed houses and they in their primitive huts with straw roofs and open fires.
So it was naturally quite perplexing for me to settle in a country where the class structure is not nearly as obvious. On my very first day, shortly after disembarking the plane, I walked past a building site and was somewhat surprised to see a white guy shovelling dirt out of a hole. A couple of days later I watched intrigued as a team of white binmen collected the rubbish on my street. At first, I assumed this meant that everyone was the same, that class here simply didn’t exist. But of course that was very naive of me. I quickly learned that people here do indeed fit into one of three distinct classes – working class, middle class or upper class.
But this is where things get awfully complicated. Ask a builder what class he is, and he will probably tell you proudly that he is working class. “Salt of the earth, mate.” Cool. Easy. So all builders are working class then? Erm, not necessarily. Take Darren: He grew up in a working class family and started off working on building sites. But he now owns his own loft conversion company and employs teams of builders all round the country. He works in a plush air-conditioned office and drives a sleek new Jaguar. He will tell you he is middle class, pointing to his collared shirt and his prim secretary, but technically he is still a builder by trade.
Right, so it’s about money then? Well, that comes into it perhaps, but again, assume at your peril. I once dated a girl whose dad had the top job at a factory. They lived a very comfortable life in a stylish house with all the mod cons which I would have associated with middle class life back in South Africa. However, when I put this to her she seemed quite offended: “We’ve always been working class, we’re not posh!”
The deeper you dig, the more convoluted it becomes. Where you live, what you eat, what you wear, what you watch on TV and what sports you like can all contribute to what class you fall under. Most middle class kids to go to university, many working class kids don’t. Middle class men are happy to use an umbrella when it rains, but take one to a building site and you’ll be laughed at. Working class people consider themselves as simple, honest, hardworking people holding the country together, and are liable to label Brits in the other social classes as “posh wankers” who haven’t got the guts for a “real man’s job” (say “mayn’s”). Middle and upper class people, by contrast, will often opine that the working classes are “a bit rough”, and consider them prone to violence, crime and, *cough*, unsavoury sexual activities. There are a few grains of truth in both perhaps, but as with any stereotype these opinions are vastly overinflated. When you dissolve away all the extraneous assumptions, the bare metal of the matter is simply that class isn’t really about your job or your bank balance; it’s about your culture.
Funnily enough, Brits don’t have any trouble assigning themselves and others into social classes. Most of them know instinctively where someone fits, even without speaking to them. And these days I generally do too. But explaining it is a struggle. It’s lots of little snatches of information, like how you conduct yourself, your accent, what vocabulary and grammar you use, what culture is important to you, what your parents do, where you hang out and what part of town you live in. But at the same time there’s no rule book which states that if you listen to classical music you are middle class and if you live on a council estate you aren’t. It’s more instinctive than factual.
All this leaves me in an odd position. What class am I? Do I import my old class assignment from South Africa to the UK, or is my class here determined by what I do for a living? The latter would certainly seem to apply to the lady I saw recently on a BBC documentary about London Underground. She is a cleaner, which most Brits would unanimously proclaim as a working class profession, yet in her home country of Russia she was a successful professional cyclist, basically a celebrity. So if this is the case, then based on the jobs I’ve had since I’ve been here, I am both middle class and working class. I have worked in a mortgage consultancy, an electrical installation company, at Tesco as a delivery driver and as a manager in a corporate office. In each profession I have had to mould myself to the predominant class structure in order to get on with my colleagues. A couple of years ago when I worked on building sites, the mere mention of art, rugby or university would generally be met with scornful remarks, so instead we talked about football and women with big breasts. At one stage we were working on an electrical installation job at the British Museum. As we were carrying a length of trunking through a display on ancient Mesopotamia, one of my colleagues remarked: “What kind of nobhead comes here and spends all day looking at these bits of old rock anyway?”
So during that period of time, I probably would have considered myself working class, based on my profession. But I would then find myself strolling home at night listening to Mozart or Beethoven on my iPhone, and accompanying my girlfriend at weekends on trips to art galleries and old castles. My colleagues, by comparison, wiled away their evenings watching Eastenders and spent their weekends playing football. I’m not in any way trying to insinuate that one pastime is superior to any other; only that they are very different. In which case, can I really class myself culturally with a group of people who have mostly alternate interests to my own? I don’t think I can.
So, I’m middle class then? Well, I don’t know. I live in Streatham, definitely not one of London’s most salubrious areas. I don’t own my own home, instead I rent a room in a flat shared with a couple of friends. My salary is not great – I don’t even earn enough to afford a car anymore. On paper I actually tick more working class boxes than middle class ones, and yet I feel more middle class than I do working class.
The conclusion I have come to is that as a foreign immigrant, I am in the seemingly enviable position of not being categorised into any social class, as opposed to having it pre-formatted into me by generations of social stereotyping. As a result, I have British friends who come from both working and middle class backgrounds, and I enjoy all of their company equally. But the downside is that, like a jigsaw piece from the wrong puzzle, I may perhaps be able to squeeze myself into a social space with similar gaps and protrusions, but I will never quite fit completely. And as long as that’s the case, I will never truly feel that sense of belonging that comes with the pride of belonging to your own class.
I have been struggling, since I became part of England’s green and pleasant land, to define what that je ne sais quoi is about this place that sets it apart from everywhere else. How is it that despite being a resident here for only ten years, I already feel so at home in and proud of this country that I will defend it as if it were my own birthplace. At first I thought the answer was that there are other places in Europe and elsewhere around the world that are duller, less successful or less engaging overall, therefore making England superior by comparison.
But the trouble with that explanation is that no matter what aspects of English life you focus on, you can also find plenty of other nations that are far more accomplished at them: More spectacular scenery; better sunshine; bigger houses; more picturesque villages and more emotive people. England didn’t invent Italian cuisine, we don’t excel at American luxury, our people didn’t give birth to epic German composers and we don’t conduct our lives with flamboyant French flair. The weather is somewhat uninspiring, we regularly lose at all of the sports which we invented, and our most famous creations are a style of breakfast, a bascule bridge and a small car.
And yet despite all this, I am still inexplicably drawn to this country, even though it doesn’t appear to do quite as well as anyone else at anything whatsoever. And I am not alone. People all over the world have attempted to artificially inject the “English feel” into everything from houses and country clubs to cars, literature and movies, even though it nearly always falls short of the real thing. For such a small island, our influence over modern culture is phenomenal.
So what is it then that England offers, which no other location in the world can lay claim to? Well, I think I may finally have come up with the answer:
England does Nice better than anyone else.
Now bear with me here, because that doesn’t sound like the type of gushing compliment fitting of a land so unique that the entire world has failed to replicate it. In fact if you ask most creative writers (especially English ones) they will probably tell you that the word Nice is banned from their vocabularies altogether. They associate it with plain, bland and hum-drum. “Nice” has become synonymous with “meh”.
But the thing about Nice is that in reality, despite it’s unfortunate overuse leading to writers spitting at it whilst brandishing a cross at arm’s length, it is actually the most concise way to describe our most comfortable state of being. Nice is a perfect cup of tea after a long day at work, it’s curling up in a warm bed on a frosty night, it’s a tumbler of amber scotch in front of a crackling fire under ancient oak beams, or a landscape of rolling green meadows stitched with stone walls and peppered with white sheep. When you meet the neighbors down the street with a cheery hello, or you finish the last piece of bacon on your plate in a good breakfast café, the only way to describe your unrivalled contentment in that exact moment, in a single syllable, is with the word “nice”.
As of yet, I have failed to discover anywhere else where the word Nice is more appropriate, more of the time, than in England. The weather is neither extremely hot nor extremely cold – it’s nice. The people are neither crazily flamboyant nor completely unappealing – they’re nice. The landscape is neither incredibly breathtaking nor completely featureless – it’s nice. The lack of annoying insects is nice, the plants we grow in our English country gardens are nice, our dry sense of humour is nice and a pint of best bitter is of course very nice indeed!
And the point is that although we may like to titillate our senses with the extremes of spectacular scenery, radiant sunshine or day-glow culture, this places us out of our normal comfort zone. When Brits head off on holiday, we might ooh and aah over the features of other lands, but when we get home afterwards and put the kettle on, we can’t deny how satisfying it is to sink into our normal sofas with a normal mug of tea and a normal newspaper.
Like a comfortable old sweater or a well-worn record, England excels most at that infinitely subtle art, not of being extreme, but of being extremely nice.
Something struck me recently, whilst I was struggling to scour a pot which had been left unwashed on our kitchen counter for about two decades: Every action that we perform during our lifetime can be broken down into two basic conceptual categories: Creative, or Destructive.
Creative processes involve bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before or improving, changing or restoring something and thereby increasing it’s value to ourselves and to others. It is the embodiment of an idea, the realization of a goal or the assistance of a fellow being. It can be as literal as painting a picture or as abstract as smiling at a stranger. Creative processes will always have some kind of aim, and more often than not have a defined conclusion.
Destructive processes by comparison are generally aimless, lazy and wasteful. They are the actions that remove something from us, degrade our personal environment or which expend energy or resources without giving us a useful return – a night slumped in front of the television or a rude gesture at a traffic light. They are selfish actions, indulgent often, and yet they are generally the ones we forget with the passage of time.
Our spiritual well-being thrives on Creative processes. They are the very fundamental building blocks of happiness, for upon completion of these actions we feel successful, fulfilled, victorious, ecstatic even. They are the moments we often remember for many years to come, doused in the heady scent of nostalgia. They make us feel more intelligent, more cultured and more purposeful, and they give us, and others around us, the inspiration to keep creating. Even the most mundane or indeed unpleasant Creative processes give us satisfaction upon completion, and in fact generally more of it than we imagine before embarking on the task.
But human beings are creatures of irony. In reality we are incredibly good at enduring discomfort. We are smart, initiating and with the right tools at our disposal we can adapt ourselves to an incredibly wide range of less-than-advantageous situations. But our fatal flaw is that we believe that we dislike these situations far more than we actually do. And so, when given a choice between a Creative or a Destructive process, we will often choose the Destructive one, because we believe that it will cause us less pain. Take out the rubbish or watch TV? Go out with friends on a cold winter evening or stay at home? Give up our seat on the tube for the pregnant lady, or pretend to read the paper? In all of these situations, the Destructive process beckons, and yet the Creative option gives us a modicum of inner peace, however small, that we can draw on later for the warmth of happiness.
So go forth now, and do your washing up.